Entrepreneurship classes grow up

Business schools are beginning to take start-ups more seriously
New direction: Christine Marcus moved from being chief financial officer at the US Department of Energy to entrepreneur

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Christine Marcus did not plan on choosing entrepreneurship from the menu when she enrolled on the MIT Sloan executive MBA programme. “If someone had told me I’d leave Sloan as CEO of a food tech start-up, I would have assumed they’d had one too many sangrias,” says Marcus, who took the EMBA to give her a broader perspective beyond her background as a chief financial officer at the US Department of Energy in Washington, DC.

But after graduating in 2013, Marcus and classmate Sal Lupoli co-founded Phoodeez (being rebranded as Alchemista), a tech-enabled corporate catering start-up that helps people order the correct amount of food for their number of guests, in a bid to avoid huge amounts of wasted catered food at meetings and events. “While I loved my career in federal government and public service, I know now that entrepreneurship is a part of my soul and a very exciting way to impact the world.”

Entrepreneurship education is an exploding, multi-billion dollar industry. But amid the froth, hyperbole and excitement, business schools are beginning to question the purpose of entrepreneurship education on their EMBA curriculums. Is it to incubate the next hot-shot invention? Or should they equip graduates with proven knowledge and skills to launch their own start-ups? Or should they send executives back to their employers to kick-start innovation as “intrapreneurs”?

Bill Aulet, one of Marcus’s senior lecturers at MIT Sloan, believes it is time entrepreneurship education in business schools grew up, underpinning classes with greater academic research and rigour.

“People say entrepreneurship education is all practitioner-based, but that’s like saying we don’t need to research medicine to train doctors,” says Aulet, who is managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and author of Disciplined Entrepreneurship, a book that argues entrepreneurship can be chunked into specific, teachable behaviours and processes.

“Business schools are full of entrepreneurs telling stories about their experiences, but students need strong pedagogy too,” argues Aulet, who recently launched the Entrepreneurship Educators Forum, an open-source community for entrepreneurship educators to share information and best practices.

Steve Blank, a Silicon Valley serial-entrepreneur and adjunct professor at Columbia, NYU Stern and Berkeley-Haas, is another critic of the way business schools teach entrepreneurship. “Not every EMBA student wants to start their own business, but every student should be learning corporate entrepreneurship,” says Blank. “Large companies are being continually disrupted and to respond they need executives who understand how start-ups innovate at speed.”

However, Blank, who developed the “lean start-up” method, says more research is needed to develop specific tools for corporate entrepreneurs and warns EMBA students to examine course content carefully. “If the capstone of the entrepreneurship class is still ‘how to write a business plan’ or if the curriculum looks the same as five years ago, you’re probably joining the wrong school,” he advises.

George Abe, faculty director at UCLA Anderson School of Management, says the tools and knowledge taught to EMBA students must be applicable to all sectors. “Most schools emphasise a minimum viable product or lean start-up approach, which is hip and applicable for businesses like social media, B2C and games,” he says. “But it’s not really suited to biotech, alternative energy or international business services. Also most schools don’t teach spin-offs, corporate venture capital or family business and succession planning.”

Local or regional context are also shaping how some schools now view entrepreneurship. Bernard Garrette, strategy professor at HEC, believes the school’s strength is in making managers, not inventors. “Like all schools, we found there was a strong appetite for entrepreneurship, but we also realised that in most cases students came up with ideas that were just copies of things they’d seen elsewhere.”

Historic: part of the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin is housed in the former East German state council building

In response, HEC has redesigned its entrepreneurship specialisation to introduce students to engineers, scientists and researchers at other institutions within the local Paris-Saclay research cluster.

“Instead of trying to transform business people into inventors or vice versa, we allow each partner to do what they are very good at.”

The European School of Management and Technology in Berlin has always had a core entrepreneurship module on its EMBA. But Berlin’s flourishing reputation as a start-up capital and the creation of a new German Tech Entrepreneurship Center on campus means the school is attracting more entrepreneurs to the EMBA who value the opportunity to spend time with like minds, explains associate dean Nick Barniville.

“Some students will start their own businesses after they graduate, but not always to the detriment of the sponsoring company,” says Barniville who points to the example of André Glardon, a recent EMBA graduate from Siemens who started his own chain of MRI clinics leasing Siemens machines.

At EMLyon there is a new elective — the “European entrepreneurial journey”, which will link EMBA students with academics in other countries to discuss the key entrepreneurship issues and challenges in their respective locations.

The flying camera Hexo+

A new EMBA course at Iéseg in Paris’s La Défense business district may not have a specific entrepreneurship module, but associate professor Catherine Demangeot says the programme has been designed to integrate entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial thinking throughout.

While in China, Ceibs has added entrepreneurship courses to its EMBA curriculum. Its new MBA E-Lab may be a modest space carved out of the canteen, but Charles Chen, EMBA director, hopes it will create synergies among students and alumni.

“We’ve seen increasing interest among our students and applicants in launching their own business,” says Prof Chen. “There’s also been a strong signal in that direction from the Chinese government... Ceibs has always placed strong emphasis on entrepreneurship.”

For students such as Jevon Le Roux, the opportunities presented by being able to study entrepreneurship while doing an EMBA were too good to miss.

The former pro surfer who introduced the Hurley fashion brand to South Africa is now enrolled on the EMBA at HEC Paris. “To grow from strength to strength requires an intimate understanding of the various moving parts of business.”

With HEC’s help, Le Roux and fellow student François de Le Rue are working with the inventors of flying-camera Hexo+.

Together, they hope to develop a strategic sales and marketing plan that will help the inventors change the way wearable cameras, such as GoPro, capture action sports.

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